Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most impressive feats of civil engineering. A 77km passage cuts through the land to link the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. It's now 100 years old but is still used by thousands of ships every year.

Boats pay a toll to go through the canal. If your ship is over 100 feet long, the cost is a huge $2,400 (£1,600).
Boats pay a toll to go through the canal. If your ship is over 100 feet long, the cost is a huge $2,400 (£1,600).
  • Updated: 12 January, 2015

Why is it important?

The canal is very important for buying and selling goods. It saves ships from travelling thousands of miles around South America and its dangerous southern tip, Cape Horn.

About 15,000 vessels pass through the canal each year now, many more than anyone thought when it was built. Major work is now being done so the canal can welcome more ships bringing goods from across the world.

How was it built?

With difficulty. Construction began in 1881 and had to be stopped in 1903 because the project became too difficult and dangerous.

But a year later, American engineers took over. They blasted huge 'cuts' out of the land to connect the oceans and inland lakes. Eventually they managed to successfully build a system of canal locks.

Today, engineers are constructing a third set of locks at each end of the canal. They're using new technology –called Building Information Modelling (BIM) – that lets engineers create more accurate designs. (Read our case study on BIM and the Panama Canal.)

Anything else of interest?

A third set of locks for the canal was planned as long ago as 1939, but this didn't happen because of the outbreak of World War II.

These efforts were not wasted, though. Part of the excavations which were dug 65 years ago are now being used in the construction of the new third locks.

Want to be a civil engineer?

If you want to find out more about a career in civil engineering, we're here to help. Our careers section has lots of guidance, whether or not you're still at school, thinking about university or entering the world of work.

Explore our careers section

Top